minstrel. One of an order of men, in the middle ages, who subsisted by the arts of poetry and music, and sang to the harp verses composed by themselves or others; a bard; a singer and harper; a musician. — Webster, 1882
A “wandering minstrel” Thos. Cat, with calliope tendencies, has been walking the echoes, out on Third Street, lately, during the erstwhile calm, stilly watches. It’s about as enchanting to the dreamers’ ear as “Yankee Doodle” brayed by a jassax quartet with fog-horn accompaniment. – June 8, 1888, Kingsbury County News.
Minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment from the mid 19th to the early 20th century, and consisted of songs, dances, and skits performed by a group of people, usually in fancy dress and wearing black-face makeup. It originated as a caricature of slaves, and it had reached its zenith of popularity prior to the fictional show described in Little Town on the Prairie.
Daniel Decatur Emmett is said to be the father of the minstrel show, founding the Virginia Minstrels and performing to wide acclaim in New York City in the 1840s. As a song-writer, Emmett is responsible for a number of songs included in the Little House books, including “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Dixie,” “The Skidmore Guard,” “De Boatman’s Dance,” and “Old Dan Tucker.”
There is no historical evidence that Charles Ingalls participated in any minstrel show in De Smet. In her handwritten Pioneer Girl memoir, Laura Ingalls Wilder devoted only 52 words to the performance, writing that it was a portion of a longer entertainment which included Mrs. Jarley’s Waxworks. Wilder included four lines from “The Skidmore Guard,” saying four men were in black-face and clogged to the music. Gerald Fuller is the only participant identified by name, and Wilder devoted more space to explaining who Mr. Fuller was than to the minstrel show itself.
In the George Bye and Carl Brandt versions of Pioneer Girl edited by Rose Wilder Lane, the narrative is even shorter, and there is no mention of any of the performers by name.
It’s not until Wilder’s Prairie Girl manuscript (what became published Little Town on the Prairie) that Charles Ingalls is described as being one of the minstrels, and Gerald Fuller is said to be the lone clog dancer. The other men are not named. Laura recognizes Pa’s hands and notices that his whiskers are tucked behind his high collar. Surely Wilder would have identified her own father as one of the performers from the very first version of her memoir – had he actually participated – but she doesn’t. Prairie Girl was planned as the final book in the Little House series; the book following The Long Winter (about the Hard Winter of 1880-1881), it was to end with Laura and Almanzo’s engagement, with Laura heading off to be a teacher while Almanzo built a little house for them to live in after her school was finished and they were married. Because of the accelerated fictional timeline, Wilder used historical events from later years and placed them within the time-frame of Little Town on the Prairie. When Wilder decided to write an additional book about the years prior to her marriage, she concentrated more on her teaching career than town events, as she had already covered that period in Little Town.
There were several minstrel shows in De Smet during the years covered in the Little House titles published by Wilder (1879-1885), and none included Charles Ingalls. Although Wilder wrote that both the waxworks and minstrel show were performed in the schoolhouse as part of Literary Society meetings, the Literaries (first held in 1883) were scholarly in nature and were usually debates or lectures. Entertainments were held at the racetrack in early years, or the skating rink or Couse’s Opera House (built in 1885) after the Wilders’ marriage.
4th of July 1883. The De Smet Leader mentioned that “burnt cork” (black-faced) minstrels performed multiple songs. The minstrels were C.B. MacDonald (newspaper editor in business with Jake Hopp), George Marsh, Jerome Andrews, and brothers Ambrose (early De Smet postmaster), Gus, and Ed. Mullen.
April 25, 1885. Mayne’s Minstrels gave an entertainment at the skating rink. They performed that spring from Pierre to Pipestone to high acclaim. The troupe was made up of businessmen from Huron, in neighboring Beadle County, and included William W. Mayne and H.F. Wiggin. Their agent was Joseph Milner. One newspaper described the minstrel show as follows: “Mayne’s minstrels were greeted with a crowded house last Thursday evening. They are all fair artists, and id their parts well. They have a very fine band which rendered good music. Everybody was highly pleased with the entertainment, and pronounced it one of the best shows of the season.” A surviving program for Mayne & Wiggins includes a clog dance as part of their performance.
It is most likely that one of these two minstrel shows were the one Laura remembered, and she decided to add Pa to the story to make it more personal to the family. Although Wilder maintained that all the stories she wrote about were true, she admitted in her letters that occasionally what she wrote had happened to someone else, but why ruin a good story for the sake of the truth?
Other minstrel shows performed in De Smet include the following:
February 26, 1887. Performance of “The Skidmore Guard” was given by Edward Couse, Dan Loftus, Billy Broadbent, and V.S.L. Owen at the Grand Army of the Republic Campfire entertainment at Couse Opera House. Hundreds of people attended the festivities, and although Laura and Almanzo’s daughter Rose was only two months old at the time, it’s possible they came in from the homestead and left her with Ma and Pa while they enjoyed some winter fun.
June 15, 1890. There was a minstrel show as part of the Good Templar’s Carnival held at the Opera House. “The De Smet minstrels appeared and gave a short performance composed of playing and singing which brought down the house. The boys might have done well to have gone on the road.” [De Smet News] Laura and Almanzo Wilder and daughter Rose were living in Spring Valley at the time.
February 1900 (two years prior to Charles Ingalls’ death). “Funnier than a house full of newspaper jokes,” [De Smet News] a local group of eighteen people (men and women) performed a minstrel show to raise money for the school library.
October 1902. The Trousdale Brothers went out with their minstrel show and trained dogs. Click HERE to learn more about De Smet drayman, Charales Trousdale, and his performing sons.
January 1904. Carl Minstrels performed in Manchester, seven miles west of De Smet. Laura and Almanzo Wilder were living in Mansfield, Missouri, but Laura’s sister Grace was married to Nate Dow and living on their farm south of Manchester.
January 1921. A minstrel show was given by the De Smet post of the American Legion in Floto Hall on Calumet, with proceeds going to the legion club fund. Legion members made up the cast, and were trained by Jack McLaughlin, a minstrel producer.
November 4, 1922. De Smet High School students put on a minstrel skit at the school carnival.
minstrel show (LTP 21), see also “The Mulligan Guard” / “The Skidmore Guard”.